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Colombia: Can a land route rival the Panama Canal?

China and Colombia are talking about building 250 miles of railroad to link Colombia's Atlantic and Pacific coasts.

Panama canal 2011 02 21Enlarge
A cargo ship goes under the Centennial Bridge over the Panama Canal, Feb. 11, 2008. (Elmer Martinez/AFP/Getty Images)

BOGOTA, Colombia — A century ago, the construction of the Panama Canal helped make the United States the dominant player in Latin America. Now, a proposed alternative to Teddy Roosevelt’s celebrated “big ditch” symbolizes China’s rise in the region.

Colombia and China are in talks about building a so-called “dry canal.” The project would consist of about 250 miles of railroad linking Colombia’s Pacific coast to a new Atlantic port that would be built near the city of Cartagena.

This ship-to-rail system would make it easier for China to import Colombian commodities — mainly vast supplies of coal — and to export Chinese electronics and other goods to the region. “It’s a real proposal … and it is quite advanced,” Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos recently told The Financial Times.

“This will benefit all of Latin America,” said Zhou Quan, the commercial attache at the Chinese Embassy in Bogota. “If there are problems with the Panama Canal, like too much ship traffic, this would be an alternative.”

Colombia’s new partnership with the world’s No. 2 economy is turning heads in Washington where the South American nation has long been considered the U.S. government’s closest ally in the region.

Since 1999, the U.S. has provided Colombia with about $8 billion in mostly military aid to fight guerrillas and drug traffickers. Colombia, in turn, supported the U.S. invasion of Iraq and has been a loyal soldier in Washington’s long-running war on drugs. As a result, the Bogota government saw little need to follow the path of nearby Peru, Chile and Brazil in bolstering trade with China.

“This obsession with the United States shaded out everything else,” said Arlene Tickner, a professor of international relations at the University of the Andes in Bogota. “That’s why the realization that China was important came so late to the country.”

But now that the guerrillas have been weakened and Colombia is no longer in danger of becoming a failed state, the U.S. government has turned its attention elsewhere. U.S. aid to Colombia has been trimmed in each of the past four years, including a 15 percent cut announced by the Obama administration last week.

More frustrating to the Bogota government is the fate of a trade agreement signed between the two countries in 2006. Due to concerns about human rights violations in Colombia and diminished support for trade agreements at home, the U.S. Congress has refused to ratify the pact.

“This has been a huge slap in the face to the Colombian government,” Tickner said.

Rather than geopolitical influence, China mainly wants a steady supply of minerals, oil, soybeans and other commodities from Latin America. Still, China’s new prominence in the region has alarmed conservatives in Washington. In fact, talk of the Chinese railroad might help persuade some U.S. lawmakers to support the Colombian trade pact, said Cynthia Watson, chair of the department of security studies at the National War College in Washington.

“Ultimately, the motivation for this is political,” said Mauricio Cardenas, a former Colombian government minister. “It’s a symbol that Colombia does not depend exclusively on the United States.”

But there are other factors. Disputes with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez have provoked a steep drop in exports to neighboring Venezuela, which used to be Colombia’s No. 2 trade partner after the United States. China now fills the No. 2 slot with $5.8 billion in trade with Colombia last year.